By Garret K. Woodward
Closing in on 20 years together, Greensky Bluegrass is much more than its name may showcase. The string quintet is more towards The Grateful Dead than Bill Monroe, more akin with Old & In the Way than the ways of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
“We were probably a little bit more bluegrass in the early days when we denied being bluegrass to where we are now. It’s hard to really say — what we are, what bluegrass is, what rock-n-roll is,” said Paul Hoffman, lead singer/mandolinist of Greensky Bluegrass. “At the risk of really trying to classify the music, we definitely have a rock-n-roll attitude and spirit to our approach. Even if we’re playing something that’s really bluegrass, we do it in a pretty rock-n-roll style, which is fast and hard.”
Initially a rag tag bunch who formed in Michigan at the turn of the century, the group has been barnstorming the country ever since, playing upwards of 175 shows a year, slowly and steadily becoming one of the marquee acts in bluegrass, jam and rock music — realms once thought to be mutually exclusive until Greensky Bluegrass started climbing over the walls.
“It’s to the point now, I think, where it’s easier to maybe define us because we have so much original music and so much experience with our own repertoire that we just truly are ourselves,” Hoffman noted. “And I think that was harder in the early days to do because there wasn’t as much of ‘us,’ it was a lot of us playing bluegrass and rock-n-roll covers.”
Greensky Bluegrass is part of this latest generation of string bands. With the likes of The Infamous Stringdusters, Billy Strings, Trampled by Turtles and Town Mountain, you have these rapidly rising groups who have soaked up so much in terms of modern musical influences (rock, jazz, hip-hop), but all seem to retain a core of traditional bluegrass.
In the midst of a live performance, Greensky Bluegrass and its audience is a sight to behold. It’s truly a back-and-forth cosmic energy, an ebb and flow of intent and purpose. It’s about being part of the human experience, about letting go and opening yourselves up the endless possibilities of live music — from those on both sides of the microphone. “Our people want to see sincerity, they want to see struggle, and we go for that,” Hoffman said. “We’re trying to have fun ourselves, too. It’s not just about putting on a fun rock show. It’s cyclical. If we’re challenging ourselves and we’re remaining creative, and we’re having fun, then that’s what it translates to for everybody else.”
With the band’s 20th anniversary on the horizon, and thousands of shows behind him and his bandmates, Hoffman feels the ensemble is only beginning, as there is so much more to chase after — musically, creatively and spiritually.
“It’s shocking, really. It’s to the point where it’s half of my entire life, which is kind of crazy to conceive. When I picked up the mandolin it was kind of random. I didn’t put a lot of thought into it. I didn’t think I would take it seriously,” Hoffman said. “And now I think to myself what my life would even be if I hadn’t had that whimsical idea that one time and followed through with it or if I hadn’t walked up and introduced myself to those dudes [that became Greensky Bluegrass]. It’s pretty wild just to think about spending so many years trying to make it, trying to decide if I can quit my job, if this can really be our job — and now it most certainly is.”
And Hoffman himself will be the first to stop and reflect on just how wild and wondrous the musical journey has been thus far for Greensky Bluegrass.
“The responsibility of being an artist and doing what we do is so huge. And to one point, it seems like we skated out of responsibility and never wore suits and ties,” Hoffman said. “But, at the same time, for so many people our music means so much more than just entertainment. It’s the catharsis from their pain. It’s the escape from their reality. It’s the thing they work hard for to do on the weekend. It’s the place where they can be with their friends — it means so much more.”
Greensky Bluegrass will be one of the performers during the Jackson Hole Rendezvous. The festival will be held March 15-16 in the historic downtown Jackson Town Square and the base of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. Other headlining acts include Grace Potter and Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, among others. For more information and/or to purchase VIP tickets, go to www.jacksonhole.com/rendezvous.